Obsession: The Difference Between Good and Great

Obsession beats talent

Illustration by Christian Laborin

Survival in the 21st century demands a ceaseless obsession with your customers and with the possibilities that new technologies can offer them. When hiring or collaborating, we want to work with the most talented people. But have you ever thought about the most obsessive? Unlike naturally talented people, the most obsessive will challenge you and make you better.

To show you what obsession looks like in the realm of sports, Kobe Bryant, Laker Legend and self-professed obsessive, produced and directed a short documentary called Guarding the Greats where he dives into the topic of guarding LeBron James. For that specific game, Bryant also brought up the fact that Kevin Durant was pitted against James.

During the six-minute clip, Kobe talks about going the extra mile to gain an upper hand on the elite player you are guarding, or else you will end up failing:

The lesson doesn’t just apply to sports, it applies to everything…

Obsession beats talent

As UFC lightweight Champion Conor McGregor (they guy in the illustration) says, “I’m not talented, I’m obsessed“. High performing organizations, and people, are great at putting talent to work. Mostly because it’s about repetition. The problem is repetition doesn’t transcend; it stagnates. While obsessive people keep pushing the boundaries, stretching out beyond what is known into the unknown, trying different stuff.

Every talented person, team and organization will eventually regress to the mean; it’s a mix of human nature and randomness. In statistics there is a concept called regression to the mean which is a technical way of saying that things tend to even out over time. The sprinter that breaks the world record will probably run closer to his or her average time on the next race; or the medical treatment that achieves stunning results on the first trial, will probably not be as efficacious on the second. Specifically, it refers to the tendency of a random variable that is highly distinct from the norm to return to “normal” over repeated tests. On average, observations tend to cluster around the mean, whether or not they follow a really unusual value. It only becomes most obvious when a strange result (e.g. a hole-in-one in golf) is followed by something much more ordinary (a double-bogey).

Basically, if you’re great for some time doesn’t mean you’ll be great forever; eventually you’ll regress to normal. This happens to people, athletes, organizations, businesses; everybody.

Talent sustains itself, obsession transcends

The most interesting and successful people I know have an obsession with something. Whether it’s plants, fitness, drawing, painting, laughing, you name it; their mindset and drive is extreme compared to others who merely enjoy the same activities. Obsessive people look beyond the obvious, push boundaries, challenge assumptions to outperform themselves.

Personally, my obsession is with performance and learning. Challenging myself to become better in every single way. If last month’s business performance was great, I want next month’s performance to be 10x better. If I had a great time with someone, I want the next time we hang out to be more epic. If I had a fast lap time on the track, I will obsess over reducing it even further with the least amount of effort and a different approach. If I feel as though I’m not getting through to people, I’ll obsess over it and figure out a better way.

I obsess over great people in all walks of life. I study them, aiming to dissect their thinking, mindset and attitudes to add it to my own.

That’s my world.

I know many well meaning and talented people, who take their talent for granted, but lack the drive to outperform themselves; their talent either stays the same or stagnates. I’ve found that obsessive people are anomalies, we’re not concerned with maintaining the status quo. Rather,  it’s about topping yourself over and over again.

We also reach a state of flow quite easily, and there’s a great sense of power and joy that comes from being able to do so.

Obsess over the right things

I see many people in business obsess over the wrong things all the time. For example, I have a friend who used to be obsessed with celebrity fame, which she wanted for herself. I always believed it was the “wrong type of obsession”, very superficial, as it means you’ll do whatever it takes just to get the feeling of attention. So, I had a talk with her and asked her, “are you obsessed with being famous or being successful for your family?”

Each answer takes you in a different direction, strategy and tactics will be different; not to mention your mindset. When you shift the question everything changes, are you doing this for your ego?

Fame is a potential outcome of success, not the end game.

For example, this blog you are reading this article in; I’ve been at it for 9 years. I didn’t set out to become the best writer / blogger in the world; I set out to improve my communication skills. Have I achieved that? Yes, very much so. But, I can do better. Every opportunity that has come to me from writing Game-Changer is a cherry on top, but not the reason why I keep doing it.

Now a little older, I’ve become obsessed with writing this blog for my future children; so my writing has also matured and changed a bit.

Focus is a qualifier, obsession is a differentiator

I know many talented operators (VP’s, General Managers) who obsess over metrics because that is how they’re evaluated, but this focus on metrics blinds you from the bigger picture: what matters to customers.

The most innovative and successful companies obsess over their customers to the point of being silly. They create their own practices to fulfill that obsession because existing practices are mediocre. This is what it take to be great, different and transcend beyond life as usual.

Passion and talent are necessary ingredients to achieve success in any endeavor. But, obsession is what separates the great from the good.


Bottom line: Obsessive people strive to outperform themselves. They understand that “OK-ness is the enemy of greatness“. To conquer any endeavor requires obsession, not just practice and persistence.

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How I Battle Distraction Sickness